Was it worth flying in from Mexico to attend the Sundance Institute’s inaugural short film workshop in Los Angeles, California? Filmmaker Octavio Maya certainly thought so. He and approximately 200 other lucky ticket holders spent July 31, 2010 inside the Downtown Independent Theater, absorbing words of wisdom from Sundance Film Festival alumni Miguel Arteta, Jay Duplass, Peter Sollett, and Corky Quakenbush, as well as representatives from Paramount, UTA, Kickstarter, Withoutabox, and YouTube. The sold-out ShortsLab: L.A. was such a hit that Sundance insiders predict it will be repeated in other cities in the future.
The day began at 9:00 a.m. with welcoming remarks by John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival. “You look talented” was Cooper’s icebreaker as he addressed the eager short filmmakers packing the 222-seat Downtown Independent Theater. “Shorts have been a big part of the Sundance Film Festival,” he explained. “About a half of what we do is dedicated to short filmmaking.”
Director of Programming Trevor Groth took over master of ceremony duties as he brought to the stage Miguel Arteta, Jay Duplass, and Peter Sollett to spend three hours on the importance of story telling and finding your voice as a filmmaker.
In pinpointing where he and his brother Mark initially went wrong as filmmakers, Jay Duplass explained, “We were trying to be the Coen Brothers for a long time. Don’t try to be the Coen Brothers, they’re always going to beat you.”
Duplass added, “No one in film school or on panels talks about it, but a big part of making art is trying to figure out who you are as an artist and what is unique that you have to offer the world.”
Peter Sollett showed his highly acclaimed, decade-old NYU thesis film “Five Feet High and Rising.” “It’s a first kiss story,” Sollett told Groth. “I’m sure you see thousands every year – I feel like I do. But the story became specific enough that it doesn’t suffer the downside.” Sollett clarified for the filmmakers in the audience, “Specificity can liberate you from cliché.“
Miguel Arteta advised, “The most important thing is you are engaged with a vision of what you’re doing. It does have to be personal, even if you don’t know it. “
Groth concluded the discussion recommending, “Make shorts because you need to create, you have stories welling up in you that need to be told.”
The 1:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m. session on production was structured as individual presentations by Darrien Gipson of SAGIndie, Peter Golub of the Sundance Institute Film Music Program, Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter, Jacques Thelemaque of Filmmakers Alliance, and animator Corky Quakenbush.
Before the industry professionals did their highly informative spiels, the six Sundance Film Festival short film programmers took the stage to share their pet peeve short film clichés, followed by a video compilation of 20 more. Among the worst offenders: pill popping montages, brushing teeth in front of the mirror, alarm clock opening scenes, stories about Hitler’s kin or reincarnation, and Burning Man documentaries.
Corky Quakenbush, who holds the record of the most amount of films to screen in competition at Sundance by one director (9), concluded the session on a high note by showing his laugh-packed classic holiday animation “A Pack of Gifts Now.” Quakenbush, who has made 150 shorts, emphasized the power of passion, vision, and forward momentum. “The world does work miracles when you put your heart in it,’ he promised.
The exhibition panel followed, moderated by Brent Hoff, editor/cofounder of Wholphin DVDs. His panelists included Christian Gaines of Withoutabox/IMDB.com, Bob Moczydlowsky of Topspin Media, Nate Weinstein of YouTube, Chris Buss of Funny or Die, and Kim Yutani of Sundance Film Festival & Outfest.
Not surprisingly, the discussion focused on Internet exposure for shorts. Yutani stressed that Sundance has no restrictions or prejudice against shorts that have previous web-exposure. “What we want to do at festivals is show your work and help you reach the widest audience possible. In our efforts to support you, we’re not limiting you.”
“And Beyond” moderated by Anne Lai, Producer in Residence at the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, was the final panel of the day. Lana Kim of The Directors Bureau, Bec Smith of UTA, Geoff Stier of Paramount Pictures, and David Worthen Brooks of Fox Digital Studio made up the panel.
“In a marketplace that’s very tough,” remarked Bec Smith, “short films can be essential in getting a feature film in need of funding over the line.“ She gave the example of “Animal Kingdom” director David Michôd, who made a short a year before making his feature. But she warned, “It’s a misconception that once you get an agent, it’ll be smooth sailing, that you’ll find the money for your feature.”
Ending on a hopeful note, Smith pointed out that “Hollywood is voracious and in love with talent. If you’re confident in your short film/proud of it, if it speaks to who you are, then let everyone know. If it’s as good as you think it is, people will take notice.” Lana Kim added, “If you continually make good work, people will find you.”
After a dinner break/networking mixer, the evening concluded with an inspirational screening of all the jury-recognized shorts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Almost thirteen hours after they first took their seats, filmmakers left the theater knowing the ShortsLab educational experience isn’t completely over. ShortsLab: L.A. workshop graduates submitting their shorts to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival will receive individual feedback on their work from a festival programmer.
Inspired by the turnout and positive feedback, Sundance insiders hope that the ShortsLab will not be a one-time/Los Angeles-only event. When upcoming workshops are announced, short filmmakers would be wise to follow Octavio Maya’s example and be there, no matter how far you have to travel.